For many in the city’s volunteer and arts communities, the destruction of a stone labyrinth on the south lawn of City Hall last week by new Mayor Mike Villa, without consulting its creators, sent a clear signal that their efforts were neither appreciated nor welcome.
The labyrinth, a series of eight concentric circles, had been built in 2013 by volunteers, with the blessing of then-mayor Ann Thane, with thousands of rocks from the Mohawk River. Some had been painted by children and others in the community.
In the week that followed its dismantling, fear circulated among some residents that other public artworks undertaken during Thane’s administration were next on the chopping block — chief among them a mural painted at City Hall’s rose garden.
“We’ve all pitched in, we’ve all wanted to see Amsterdam cleaned up, look better, get the kids involved, make things nicer, plant flowers,” said Karin Hetrick, a lifelong city resident who painted the mural with her sister in 2011. “Just those little things like that that people worked so hard at in the city to just be involved and beautify what we could. And he just thinks all of that stuff is frivolous.”
Villa, a Republican and son of former mayor Mario Villa, beat Democrat Thane by a nearly 2-to-1 ratio in the November election.
On Thursday, he said many of the rumors about his plans for public art were unfounded.
“I’m not into painting over any murals or anything like that right now,” he said. “The only one that comes into question is the one at City Hall, and that would not be my doing.”
According to Villa and Robert von Hasseln, city historian and former director of community and economic development, the city was awarded a state Historic Preservation grant more than a year ago to renovate certain areas of City Hall, parts of which date back to the early 1800s.
The reconstruction of a veranda on the back of the building, Villa said, could potentially involve the rebuilding of the wall on which the mural was painted.
“Whether that’s part of that renovation process, I do not know,” he said. “We’ll just have to wait and see when they come in and make their assessment on repairs. If it’s ‘no’ then it stays, if it is, then it’s up to the contractors how we go about repairing that.”
Von Hasseln said from a technical standpoint, it is unlikely that the work would affect the Tuscan-style mural, which has been used over the past few years as a backdrop for weddings, senior portraits and prom photos.
The City Council will likely start the bidding process for that work this spring.
The fate of the city’s Creative Connections Arts Center on East Main Street is likewise up in the air, as Villa said it will be scrutinized as he and others work to get the city’s troubled finances in order.
“I haven’t done a feasibility study on that to see the cost to the city versus the need, but we’ll look at all that and that will be something we discuss as we go through the budget process,” he said. “I would like to keep it open. I think it serves a purpose.”
Ultimately, he said, that would be a decision for the Common Council.
Works done on city property without formal Common Council approval, however, like the labyrinth and murals, are left open for Villa to change at his discretion.
And despite the backlash, he stands by his decision to remove the labyrinth.
“When I make a decision, I stand by my decision,” he said. “If I had to do it again today, I would make the same decision. It’s something that I felt very strongly about. I’m sorry if it offended anyone, but it’s my personal observations of this building and I just did not think it fit what City Hall is — it’s a governmental building, it should remain a governmental building.”
The labyrinth had been placed in an area that was designated a Grand Army of the Republic Park in 1950 to honor the soldiers killed in the Civil War.
“Even though there’s nothing in it, it’s supposed to be there to honor the Civil War veterans and dead,” said Dan Weaver, a trustee of the Historical Amsterdam League and owner of the Book Hound bookstore in the city. “It would be nice to find out what that park was supposed to be there for exactly and what can be placed there and what can’t be.”
Weaver, who also hosts a radio show focused on the city’s news and politics, said he was not distraught by the removal of the labyrinth, though he would hate to see the city lose its murals or other works of public art.
“The labyrinth to me doesn’t fall quite in the same category as the other art,” he said, “but from a political and strategic point of view, it was a really bad move to take that out, especially to start taking it out your first full working day in office.”
And while much of the outrage and debate has raged online, the move has had real-world consequences. Hetrick was at the Creative Connections Art Center this week removing artwork that had been given to the center by a local donor. He wanted it back before the doors were closed for good, she said.
Hetrick said she doesn’t see herself or the other volunteers she knows taking an active part in civic life under the Villa administration.
“I think it’s a big concern,” she said. “We’re not a small group of minions. We’re hundreds of people who went out and helped do different community events.”
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